The paradox of Donald Trump’s bombastic presidential campaign is that his rise may ultimately benefit the rival he has attacked most vociferously.
With his rambling and belligerent speech in Phoenix last Saturday, Trump signaled again that on the sprawling list of targets that inspire his antagonism, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ranks near the bulls-eye. “If you people go with Bush,” Trump insisted flatly during the speech, “you are going to lose.”
And yet, while he is creating some risks for the nominal front-runner, many Republican analysts predict that Trump eventually could prove more asset than obstacle to Bush’s bid for the party nomination. “If you were a total evil-conspiracy theorist, you’d think the Trilateral Commission got Trump to run because … it helps Jeb more than anybody,” says longtime Republican strategist David Carney.
The surge of interest in Trump could threaten Bush in one important respect: by radicalizing opinion within the party on immigration issues where Bush has taken a relatively moderate position.
But Trump’s ascent could inadvertently help Bush, both by providing him a foil in the immigration debate, and also by dividing the populist conservative voters who are least likely to ever support an establishment favorite like the former Florida governor.
That dynamic could especially threaten Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who formally announced his candidacy Monday and has taken a series of steps—including a hard line on both undocumented and legal immigration—to court the same disaffected voters now flocking to Trump in polls.
Trump’s most obvious threat to Bush is intensifying the spotlight on immigration, an issue where Bush already faces formidable resistance from the GOP’s most conservative elements.
Even before Trump raised the temperature with his attacks on Mexico, immigration had emerged as a major dividing line in the 2016 GOP race. Almost all of the Republican contenders have rejected any legal status for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., which Bush has consistently supported (although he has wavered on whether he would also accept citizenship, as opposed to permanent legal status, for them).
Local politicians, human-rights leaders, and immigrant advocates gather to protest against billionaire Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump outside the Trump International Hotel, currently under construction on Pennsylvania Avenue between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, July 9, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Latino and Hispanic people were enraged when Trump disparaged immigrants and particularly Mexican-Americans while announcing his run for the presidency. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In addition, three contenders—Walker, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—have suggested a reduction as well in legal immigration, which Bush has also rejected. Now, Trump’s vitriolic attacks on Mexico have galvanized so much attention that they appear likely to dominate the first GOP presidential debate on Fox News Channel in August.
Polling conducted this spring in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, sites of the critical three early GOP contests, found that a majority of likely Republican voters in each state supported either legal status or full-scale citizenship for the undocumented. In the surveys conducted by Burning Glass Consulting, founded by three women with a long pedigree in GOP politics, only 29 percent of likely GOP primary voters in Iowa, 34 percent in New Hampshire, and 37 percent in South Carolina said the undocumented should be denied any legal status.
But Katie Packer Gage, the cofounder of Burning Glass, and the deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012, says those attitudes could buckle under a sustained campaign argument about immigration. “I don’t think we want to have the whole discussion be on immigration,” she says. “When you look at our poll in the primary states, the majority is for a pathway [to citizenship or legal status], but it’s more like they would accept a pathway. It’s not like they are anxious for it.”
Indeed other surveys show a substantial strain of anxiety about immigration—both undocumented and legal—running through the GOP coalition, particularly among the party’s substantial blue-collar and older constituencies. In one national Pew Research Center poll, nearly half of Republicans older than 50 and those without a four-year college degree opposed any legal status for the undocumented. Meanwhile, more than three-fifths of each group said legal immigrants were more a burden than a benefit to American society. On each issue, considerably fewer younger and college-educated Republicans expressed those conservative views.
Although Trump broadly praised legal immigration in his Saturday speech, most analysts believe Trump’s support is likely to flow most from the blue-collar and populist Republican voters who respond not only to his attacks on undocumented immigrants and free trade, but also to his blunt nonpolitician style. “They tend to be people who like the idea that he’s not a politician: They say this is a guy who ‘says it like it is’ and he doesn’t care what people think.” Gage notes. “They like that he is a very successful businessman.” Trump sent a clear signal to those voters on Saturday when he reprised a phrase from the Richard Nixon era that referred to overlooked middle-class white voters and insisted: “The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take the country back.”
Trump’s potential appeal to voters in the party’s populist wing is what could tilt his impact on Bush from threat to asset. Polls generally show Bush running best among the party’s “managerial” wing of college-educated, moderate, and upscale voters. That means if Trump can sustain his support—which many Republican analysts question—he is likely to be strongest among the voters where Bush is weakest. And to the extent Trump attracts those voters, he denies them to more-conventional Bush rivals like Walker or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Many GOP analysts agree that Bush will benefit if voters alienated from him gravitate to Trump, who probably faces a lower ceiling of total support, than to Walker or Rubio, who have the potential to build a broader and more potent coalition. Combining results from the past three NBC/Wall Street Journal national surveys, just 27 percent of GOP primary voters said they would consider voting for Trump, far fewer than indicated they could back Bush, Walker, or Rubio.
Trump creates even more immediate problems for second-tier candidates such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Huckabee, and Santorum, who have all targeted a similar group of blue-collar and conservative voters. “It just takes the energy out of the room, and it’s going to be harder for a person not in first place to break through,” says Carney, a top Perry strategist in 2012.
What about the guys on his boat that did not support his statement that he spent Christmas in Cambodia? Do you believe them also?
Gee Richie, I hope this doesn’t spoil your weekend:
@Redteam: I’m truly sorry you’re an old shut in homosexual RT. Hopefully you can get up from your keyboard fantasies someday soon. In the meantime I’m gonna disregard any future messages you may have for me—-Thanks
@Rich Wheeler: So you concede defeat to a better man. Wear your chaps proudly.